Wednesday 18 November 2009

Playing The Ashes

A few weeks ago, I spoke at Playful 09. When Toby Barnes talked to me about speaking, he asked me to propose something that interested me rather than something I was working on. I immediately answered 'The Ashes', having just been to the Oval for Day 3 of England v Australia, Test Match Cricket.

Here's pretty much the talk I gave - I hope - posted on request of Toby, and a few cricket-loving friends. Thanks to Playful for having me, and the incredibly generous response of you who were in the audience.


Hello. I'm Tassos Stevens, one of the Runners of Coney. I don't have any slides but I have written my talk. Coney makes live interactive crossplatform play, taking whatever form and event to best make stories and play for, by and with its playing audience. Coney describes itself as agency of adventure and play, founded on principles of adventure - everything should feel as exciting an adventure, loveliness - we must take care of our playing audiences, reciprocity - you get back at least what you put in, and total potential engagement. These principles apply both to our work and to Coney itself. Currently amongst others, Coney is running A Small Town Anywhere, a theatre piece for no performers but a playing audience, in a sell-out run at Battersea Arts Centre.

I wanted to mention this at the top because I may come back to it in the coda to this presentation.

But I'm here to talk about something else. Something that is an extraordinarily compelling event of story and play, with unique architecture and qualities that enable a fluid engagement for its many constituencies of playing audience. It has been running now for 117 years. It's Test Match Cricket. England versus Australia, the greatest rivalry. The Ashes.

Cricket. Hope you don't have to be a fan to appreciate this. I'm not planning to get very crickety. Myself, I'm not even a particularly hardcore fan, I'm more immersed according to our traditional power-law pyramid.

Now cricket itself is of course a sport. Like all sports it embeds the most compelling question in storytelling, the question that we as narrative-machines are always asking ourselves whether we like it or not: what happens next. In sport, more than life, more than art. Sport is live and indeterminate, while we may feel confident in predicting what will happen next, we can never know for certain - whether that's in a match or in a single moment. But like art, the set of possible things that might happen next is focused in our immediate imaginative grasp, we know immediately that it's win or lose, hit or miss. And we know what that means in the outcome of the match. And that's compelling. If you don't believe me, try walking past someone in a park who is about to catch a ball and try not to pause to see if they catch it or drop it.

And it's not unusual for us story-players to be making eyes at sport as participation narratives, there have been a couple of good stabs looking at football. But it's the distinctive features of cricket, especially Test Match Cricket, that make this I hope an interesting comparison. And ultimately I am here to talk about the making of story and play by us audiences during the Ashes rather than the play of the teams themselves.

First, about cricket.

All sports have simple mechanics at their heart. Football: kick the ball into the other team's goal and score. Tennis: two players hit a ball at each other with a bat until one of them misses - score. Cricket's heart is a little more complex because the two teams are acting differently. One team is batting, the other is bowling, And then they swap. When you're batting you score points called runs by hitting the ball away from your wicket and running. You lose lives called wickets if the ball hits your wicket, or if it's caught, or... and then there are a few more complicated ways. But you can tell the simple mechanic because it's how kids will play it on the street. Kids will play cricket with anything. I once as a grown-up spent a long time in a rehearsal room playing cricket with a ball made out of masking tape, a plank of wood as a bat and a chair as a wicket. And the simple mechanic is almost always what the highest points of drama in the game hinge upon.

In Test Match Cricket, one side bats until they have lost all their wickets in their innings, then the other side bats, then they both repeat. And the one that scores the most runs in total over their two innings wins the match. But if the side that would lose on runs hasn't lost all its wickets, it's a draw. Simple. Ish.

There are 11 players in a team. But at any given moment, it distils down into a gladiatorial contest: one player is bowling and one player is batting. And bowlers keep changing, and batsmen get out and keep changing. So the two players who face off against each other are endlessly shifting, ball by ball. Players have different strengths and weaknesses, a good batsman is not often a good bowler, and vice-versa. The endless combinations of who versus who, makes for a set of very human narratives that collectively can become epic. But still all striving towards one ultimate outcome: who will win the Ashes.

Test Cricket is long. A match can last for up to five days. Who wins The Ashes is decided over a series of 6 matches, over 2 months. And then the whole series repeats 2 years later. It's almost impossible for any spectator to be at every single day of every single match across a whole series, unless you're a commentator. Or a player. Hard even to watch it on television without taking a holiday for that express purpose. But you don't have to. It is an ambient narrative that can percolate in the background of the rest of your life, always tempting but only occasionally demanding your full attention. No mistake that the archetypal medium for cricket is actually the radio: Test Match Special. Radio is an imaginative and ambient medium. You can do other things while it is on. And the most popular live format for cricket online is the Over by Over commentary, the best example for me being The Guardian's. A journalist is watching the game, usually on telly in the office. Every over they write a short paragraph about what happened and update it. They also include the emails from spectators they like the most. It's a live blog, and a conversation between host journalist and audience who come and go as they please, while the live event that is the focus goes on in the background.

Cricket is a punctuated sport, rather than continuous. Football is continuous in play, for 90 minutes - other than the half-time interval - and the ideal game would have the players are always keeping the ball in play, minimising the time it is out of play. In cricket, there are intervals for lunch and tea in any one day. There are nights off before the next day. But even moment by moment, ball by ball, the ball is in play as it is bowled, the action happens, and then there is a punctuation before the next action, the next ball. It's a comma rather than a full stop, but it still gives us time to breath, and to imagine what will happen next. And to talk to our fellow spectators, to make stories about what we imagine will happen next. Or just to talk to each other. Test Match Special is as famous for its commentary about the cake the commentators are eating as it is about the cricket. It's in the space between the game that the play really happens.

For here is the primary beauty of Test Cricket as a sport: it is intricately indeterminate. We don't know for certain what will happen next. We can only imagine what will happen next. We don't even know who's winning for certain, let alone who will win the game. In cricket, we spectators don't deal in certainties, only in probabilities. We are probably winning this match, but Dot Dot Dot. And in the space between then we tell each other stories about what we think will happen next, while anticipating the moment that play returns again so briefly.

Indeterminacy is true of any sport. But not to the same degree. You always know in football who is winning, so if nothing else happens in a game after a team goes 1-0 up, they will certainly win. So if a side like AC Milan goes 3-0 up at half-time in the European Cup Final, then they are winning, you as a spectator can be 99% certain that they will win the game. Which makes any subsequent comeback little short of miraculous.

In cricket, we don't actually know who is winning. Because you have to take turns to score runs and take wickets. So England score 435 runs in their first innings. Are they winning? Probably. But Australia bat, and they score 60 runs before losing their first wicket, nearly 300 before losing their second, so Australia are winning? Well here at 299 for two, they might score 600. Then they'll be winning. Probably. We imagine Australia winning as the outcome and as the game progresses it grinds inexorably towards that outcome. But it only takes one ball to get a wicket. And usually when one wicket comes, the batsmen are suddenly more vulnerable. So more wickets might come, and the game's imagined outcome will suddenly shift. A game that can play for days with only one result imaginable can suddenly turn around in minutes.

As it happens Australia score 674 runs in their second innings, a lead of 239.

But in cricket, it's not enough to score the runs, you need to take the wickets too. All the wickets. Australia on the final day are bowling at England who are on a pitiful 20 for two. Australia need to take eight wickets. England, 239 runs down, are trying to survive, not to lose all their wickets, in which case they will draw. But only 70 runs on the board and they are 5 wickets down. Their best batsmen have all gone. And wickets keep falling. Until our last remaining good batsman goes and Australia only need one wicket to win and facing them are two batsmen for England, one of whom is really not much better than me. Monty Panesar, a brilliant bowler, can't really bat, certainly can't catch. It could almost be me up there. He's got a better beard than me though. But he can't bat. And for 70 balls he has to keep out an Australian bowling attack baying for victory. It's almost certainly Australia's match. And. Monty survives. Miraculously. It's a draw. If you're told, it was a draw, you imagine that as unexciting. But there were 70 balls, 70 actions when the match could be lost in a second, where you imagined it would be lost, but were hoping it wouldn't, 70 nails and still the coffin couldn't be shut. And it's a man who's big and beardy like me up there.

Indeterminacy. Every bowl is different. You can bowl fast or slow, make the ball swing in the air one way or the other, make the ball spin as it hits the ground one way or the other. Different bowlers have different skills, different batsmen have different vulnerabilities.

Indeterminacy. The pitch matters. It's a variable. This isn't flat and green like a pingpong table. It's flattish and greenish like grass. It gets wet and then it dries, it gets trodden on, it cracks, the ball moves more and more unpredictably as the match progresses, so that when the game is being decided, it's usually harder and harder for the batsmen to survive and not lose their wickets.

Indeterminacy. This is the only game whose result can be swung by an Act of God. The weather is a crucial factor. If it rains, then play stops until the rain stops. The book that collected the Guardian Over by Over for the 2005 Ashes series was titled after an audience question on the morning of the final match of the series, in which England needed to avoid defeat to win the Ashes. That question: Is It Cowardly To Pray For Rain.

Indeterminacy and Punctuation and Ambience. The three key qualities of the Ashes.

And also tribalism, of the gentle kind. Tribalism is good because it gives you a common identity, your tribe and the opposition, a common focus and competitive goal, all of which mean you can start playing with your fellow spectators straight away. All sports share this, and I reckon that a football fan could start a conversation with strangers in a bar anywhere in the world (except the USA maybe). But football tribalism is often hot, intense, as befits a game where you are shouting for 90 minutes. This is disengaging for many, and can often spill into ugly abuse and violence from the hardcore. Cricket tribalism is often much gentler. It's much harder to get uglier, at least outside of the India-Pakistan furnaces which are fuelled by the hostility between those two nations.

That the Ashes' tribalism is gentler is partly due to those three key qualities. But also some innate ridiculousness. The trophy is a ceremonial urn containing the ashes of a bail burnt from the wicket in that first series in 1882, when Australia first beat England, and the Times published an obituary to English cricket.

It's tiny. How ridiculous.

This is a sport which stops for tea, where the result can be determined by the weather and whose commentators are obsessed with cake. How patently and beautifully ridiculous.

Still, there is a rivalry. There is an obsession for each side in beating the other, beyond any other rivalry. For Australia it's perhaps the casting-off of the Empire. For England in recent times, Australia were inexorable, winning all series between 1985 and 2005, becoming for English fans a bit like a different Empire, the all-conquering villain of Star Wars.

And this rivalry in a punctuated sport facilitates a certain kind of play in between balls, verbals between players designed to unsettle concentration or just score points: sledging. Some of my favourite examples. Australia's Glenn McGrath to Eddo Brandes (of Zimbabwe, but this sledge has spread virally into the Ashes too): Mate, why are you so fat? Brandes' riposte: Because every time I sleep with your wife, she gives me a biscuit. Paul Nixon, an England wicketkeeper and supreme sledger, to Andrew Symonds, perhaps not the brightest button in the Australian eleven: You should concentrate on when you're breathing in, and when you're breathing out. Symonds was flummoxed and got out. Players like the spinning god Shane Warne can use the crowd itself to unsettle batsmen - Warne's showmanship rallied the focus and anticipation of the stadium for just what kind of ball he'd bowl next, rattling the batsman's nerves. And spectators can sledge players. I was at the Oval in this Ashes series on the Saturday for the intense pleasure of England's batting led by Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann smearing the Australian attack over the ground. Australia's Mitchell Johnson was bowling, badly. In turn, his fellow pacemen Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle were fielding at the boundary about 6 metres away from me in the second row. A well-timed 'why aren't you bowling, mate?' I hoped was enough to amplify what they themselves were probably thinking as Johnson got battered. I kid myself that this contributed to themselves both getting hammered when they bowled. That's the play.

So. The Ashes. Indeterminacy. Punctuation. Ambience. Tribalism Lite. All facilitating the play of us spectators.

Quickly about A Small Town Anywhere, as the promised coda. It's not cricket but it does feel very much like sport. Up to 30 people take a role, hat and badge as a citizen to enter a Town. Through their own play, gossiping through conversation and correspondence using the working postal service, a story unfolds. There are events external to the Town which demand their response and the voice of the Town Crier as a narrator guiding them through a week, but ultimately it's down to them, and every night it is different, unpredictable, alive. We're behind a wall, monitoring it imperfectly through CCTV, mikes, spyholes and especially reading every letter as it passes through our sorting office. We're then responding as best we can in writing and posting them letters, the riffs and inflexions of the Town Crier, the lights, sounds and the spinning clock. We have some influence, but no control. It makes me feel like a football manager on the touchline. We know the range of possible results and outcomes of the whole or any given moment, but the play is so emergent we have no direct control, only limited influence. It's incredibly exciting though.


Writing this up afterwards, I cannot honestly remember how I finished the talk other than in nervous sweat to be done in time. Maybe this was it. Thanks to everyone again for such generously positive responses afterwards.

My friend Andy had teased me that surely this was just an opportunity for me to wheel out my cricket-bore story, that my granddad took me when I was 12 to one of the most gobsmacking days in the history of Test Cricket: 1981, Headingley, Day 4, when England were so staring down the barrrel that they were 500-1 against to win, until Ian Botham and Graham Dilley hit out in hope and glee to push towards what became the most improbable victory. There, Andy, I got it in now. I think my granddad would have been a tad bemused but happy to see me giving this talk in this context. Thanks to him for awakening this passion in me for a beautiful sport, in the most excellent day I ever spent with him.


Matt said...

I've never really been interested in cricket - it's lack of immediacy has always put me off. After reading this, I think I will be inclined to see it differently.
Great post.

Unknown said...

Love this, T. Warm and lucid. Cured this bear's sore head this morning. Thank you! xx